Thursday, December 27, 2007

New Year, Old Chair

Since starting Chair Notes, I've gotten a lot of contact from woodworkers seeking information and inspiration as they embark on their first chair. With the coming of the new year, I thought it might be appropriate to show my first chair. For years this chair languished in dark corners, a reminder of all that I didn't know when I started chairmaking. Now it has a special place, where I see it daily, as an expression of honest enthusiasm and willingness to embrace new ideas. Awkward as it is, it is my favorite chair.

While living in Manhattan, I was looking for a change from the cabinet making that I had been doing. The noise, dust, danger and sheer massiveness of the work didn't bode well for my long term. I also knew too many "woodworkers" who had barely touched a piece of real wood in years, plywood proves to be a more realistic provider when paying for space, machines, electricity, employees and materials. So I rented a tiny shop, shared with a guitar maker, and set out to find something that I could make in a small quiet space, with effective hand tools, cheap materials and most importantly fun.

Over the next year, inspired by a magazine photo of Curtis Buchanan's Birdcage sidechair, I worked through learning the technology of working green wood into chairs. What I didn't know, was that I'd taken on one of the toughest chairs to make. Every piece above the seat is curved and must meet up like a seamless net (you can see some places on my chair that I would never call "seamless"). And I can still recall scratching my head for hours trying to figure out a system for drilling and measuring the "box" stretchers. I think you can see why my attitude towards my first chair has changed from dismissal to amazement, after all, it has four legs that touch the floor!

To those of you making your first chairs, I have one piece of advice, keep them close. Proficiency will come soon enough and you'll come to appreciate the earnest leaps of those early works.

Friday, December 21, 2007


Here we are on the shortest day of the year and I think that this log pretty much reflects the mood. Even twenty years after leaving the south, I still can't seem to get used to these short days!

This year has been great. Between all my students, clients and blog response, I've felt very lucky. Thanks to everyone.
Next year promises to be interesting. I'll be working on more writing projects, introducing a tool of my own and of course making new chairs. I'm more interested than ever in feedback and ideas for the blog, I love seeing the photos of work and ideas in the chairmaking community.

I wish everyone a happy and healthy holiday,


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Guest Blogger Elia Bizzarri

Here is an image of the finished volute carving. I hope the series was of benefit. I'll describe the gouges I used next.

The next section is by Elia Bizzarri. He is looking for feedback on his essay about reamers. Thanks for taking time to reply here or directly to Elia at Elia is a great resource as a chairmaker willing to supply the rest of us with good tools built correctly for the trade. So here's Elia,

I have tried write a non-biased look into the pros and cons of two common tapers used for leg to seat joints in Windsor chairs. That said, I have had a hard time finding many advantages for eleven degree tapers. I would love to hear from anyone who uses eleven degree tapers regularly or has any other comments on this article.

6 degree versus 11 degree tapers

I personally prefer six degree tapers for a number of reasons. Shallower tapers makes a stronger joint because when the joint is driven home it locks tighter, and takes more force to remove, than a similarly sized joint of a steeper taper. Shallower tapers should also theoretically be stronger because the difference between the smallest and largest diameters of the tenon is less; when the seat changes thickness with changes in moisture content the mortise will try to pull away less from the sides of the tenon. All this can be taken too far as shallower tapers are more likely to split a seat during assembly than steeper ones.

Taking this to the extreme, why not use cylindrical tenons like those on the stretchers and spindles? Assembly is easier with tapered joints and the tighter the stretcher joints in the undercarriage the more this will be noticeable. When using hand tools, it is harder to bore a hole at the correct angle then to drill an approximate hole and then ream it perfect. Tapered joints don't squeegee glue off the joint the way cylindrical ones do, thought admittedly this is a minor issue. However, one oft mentioned advantage of tapered joints in my opinion does not hold water; that tapered joints get tighter from the weight of the sitter. A joint is allowed get tighter only when that joint fails and our goal should be to make a joint that will not fail because it is tight to begin with.

Aside from issues of strength, six degree tapers are easier to use than eleven degree tapers for several reasons. Less wood to remove from the mortise means the reaming process goes faster. Also, the reamer is less likely to get started at a drastically incorrect angle because narrower tapers have more bearing surface on the cylindrical hole.

On an aesthetic note, I find that six degree tapers allow me to slim down the turnings where they enter the seat making them less bulky. However, eleven degree tapers tend to be smaller where they come through the seat making the joint less obtrusive.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Knuckles Pt.4

I couldn't resist this photo of the intitial paring of the volute. I generally try to carve this step to a uniform depth. Sometimes the stop cuts aren't deep enough to have the chip, or ring in this case, fall free. I never tear the chips out, instead, I carefully retrace the stop cuts until it is cut free.

My goal now becomes refining the over all shape of the volute and carving deeper where the volute begins. The depth gets progressively shallower as the cuts go toward the center.

Below an image of the paring into the curved carving on the outer part of the hand. The curvature creates a few problems worth mentioning. The curve means that the endgrain is exposed which can lead to difficulty in the stop cuts and paring. Striking to hard or deep when establishing the stop cuts can cause short grain failure and lead you to looking for part of your carving on the floor! Be gentle until you understand the weaknesses.

The most glaring trouble comes when you start paring. Because of the exposed endgrain, you can't always carve in from the outside to the inner circle like you can on the "flat" knuckle. The chisel will slide inbetween the fibers and follow or tear them as you try to carve. The image below shows the "safe" direction for paring.

This direction must be followed all the way around, awkward as it may seem, with only a slight range of variation to the left or right. Experimentation, and picking up parts of your carving a couple of times will show the viable direction to carve.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Drawing Volutes

I draw my volute carvings by following a simple sequence of lines and focusing on a few requirements. I begin by drawing a line near the outer perimeter as seen in drawing A. Then I draw a larger radius curve out to the flat area as seen in B. It doesn't matter if it is perfect, it is a reference and can be changed later.

Drawing C shows the beginning of the interior shape. When drawing it, my goal is to have the negative space above the line by decreasing. Another way to put it is to say that the line will be moving closer to the line from drawing A. A small point worth mentioning is that the initial boundary of my volute is a true circle, but the final shape diverges because as the volute wraps around, it's radius decreases. This can be seen in the small space on the bottom right of the carving. I carve this area away later.

Drawing D shows the final wrapping of the line to form the inner circle.

My main focus for a successful drawing is the negative space (shown darkened in drawing E). This shape should be a curved taper. If any part gets thicker as it head towards the center termination, I know that I must adjust something. My goal is to have the eye follow without interruption to the center of the carving.

Below is a photo of the incised line that I make as the stop cuts for my carving. By using gouges of differing sweeps in sequence, I can follow and refine my drawing. I don't make the initial cuts too deep in the oak, a couple of passes is better and helps me to define the depth of the carving.

Designing your carvings can be done around the tools you have available. Play around drawing the shape and then see where your tools might fit, I always prefer a compromise between the tools and the drawing versus buying every useful gouge!

Knuckles Pt.3

Here is the knuckle after I use the V gouge (yes, they are hard to sharpen) to better define the lobes of the carving. Then I use a regular chisel to help refine the shape.

Here I have used a Nicholson rasp (the finer of the two) to further refine the shape. I don't complete the shape now, preferring to carve the volutes and then form the knuckle to them.

Here is the rough drawing of the volute. I do it freehand (years of art school finally pay off). The shape and depth of the volutes is open for interpretation. You can draw them according to strict mathematics or just do what looks good to you. I follow a few simple guidelines. I want the negative space, meaning the part that I'll carve away, to decrease in width evenly as it wraps its way around the center and terminates. I have had a lot of questions about drawing this shape, I will post a step by step next.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Knuckles Pt.2

After the blocks are glued on the underside of the hands, I mark the desired thickness of the knuckles (here 1 1/8th inches). Then I use a drawknife and finally a handplane to bring them to the line. As the picture shows, I draw the circle that represents the outermost part of the volute.

I find that the drawknife and the shavehorse are the fastest way to remove the initial carving. Here is the knuckle after meeting the drawknife.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Now that every gouge in my shop is razor sharp (I wish), it's time to do some knuckle carving. Carved knuckles are a bit of aesthetic flourish, no real point to them but to excite the senses. I recall looking at photos of Sam Maloof working on a chair and envying the fun he seemed to have using hand tools to shape the wood. His work may seem more "form and function" without curlicued volutes and balusters, but to my eye he spends most of his time indulging in shaping wood. It's easy to forget, but making shapes in wood is all a woodworker does, and carving knuckles is a great reminder.

I am going to be doing a photo essay on carving knuckles. Here is where I begin, by gluing on a block of wood with the grain direction the same as the arm to form the bottom of the carvings.

I use handplanes for the flattening of the glue joint and am very picky about it being dead on. A flat plane iron (which can only be honed on flat stones!) is key as well as a willingness to be honest. Does the joint fit without movement? When you press on one side does the other lift? Try again.

Here is where the essay is heading, I'll show the inbetween photos next.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Gouge Grind

Here is the result of the "sideways"grind. As the grinding reduces the size of the blunted edge, I take great care to not let the tool heat up and burn the thin edge. I am freehanding the angle, but I do check it and try to keep it in the 22 to 25 degree range, depending on its intended use. If I am carving stop cuts in oak, I will use a stouter edge that carving gutters into pine. I also keep my finer tools honed and ground for paring type cuts, no mallets there.

After the grinding, there are a couple of ways to proceed.The name of the game is honing the edge with a very gently rounding of the edge. I know that using buffers and strops will round the edge so my focus in on minimizing this result to the point that it benefits the cutting ability of the tool and doesn't hinder it. I head back to my Bear-tex wheel and use the same "sideways" technique, being careful to hold the tool so that the buffing wheel is unable to catch the edge. Once I have turned a small burr to the inside, I polish the bevel on a hard felt wheel with green polishing compound. The all that is left is to remove the burr. I use the buffing wheel or a leather stop. It is important not to round the interior surface too much trying to remove the burr or you'll find yourself back where you started.

I am an advocate of garage sale or junk shop gouges, not just because they are cheap, but because this lack of investment can encourage experimentation with grinding and honing. Grind it, burn it, buff it, try it, try again, learn. I still do and still am.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Gouge Rehab Pt.2

Here is the inside of the gouge after polishing and blunting. I had to use some 320 grit sandpaper wrapped around a dowel to get to the bottom of the pitting. I then followed with some 400 grit and went to my buffing wheel. I used the Bear-tex rubber wheel and then a hard felt wheel with some buffing compound. I have become an advocate of buffing ever since I got a Bear-tex wheel. It cuts somewhere between a fine grinder and a felt buffer.

Here is the blunted edge before grinding. As you can see, the last time that I ground it, I did so in the "standard" way.

Now I like to grind freehand and sideways, foregoing any hollow grind. Because a slight rounding over of the edge helps the tool exit the cuts, I prefer to keep the bevel flat from heel to toe. I'll show the grind next.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Gouge Rehab

Here is Brian Turano enjoying his chair. I'm sure that after slipping down my driveway, he is ready to get back to Hawaii!

I have a couple of comb back rockers in the works and plenty of carving to do. It has me thinking about gouge sharpening and rehabilitation. Most of my gouges are of the garage sale variety, although I have managed to get some Swiss made over the years. The mishmash gouges sometimes have questionable quality but the price is always right. I will also be detail which gouges make up a good set for most chair detailing (I haven't forgotten JF).

Like all sharpening, it is vital to understand the condition of the tool as it is. I do this with the endgrain pine test. The nasty gouge on the left was the condition of the tool before sharpening. Plenty of subsurface damage. The gouge on the left is the after result. I will show the process that I followed.

As you can see below, the interior of the gouges is rounded over (by repeated buffing and stropping) and a bit pitted. The first step in rehabbing the tool is going to be cleaning up this surface. The next step is going to be blunting the edge, and with this in mind, I can aggressively polish the surface without fear of rounding the edge further. After blunting and grinding, I will be diligent to not round the edge again.

I'll show the process and results of the polishing the interior next.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


This has been an interesting week, seeing the world of winter through the eyes of my student from Hawaii. Although he is a native New Englander (he started surfing in the Atlantic), he has been in Hawaii long enough to be excited to see snow. Apparently, the temperature is always within 10 degrees of 80 there and the length of the days doesn't vary like it does here. I couldn't resist this shot out the window of the barn, my only complaint is that the sun setting so beautifully behind the house was at 3:30!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Sometimes absolutely everything goes right. The holes are perfectly aligned, the tenons correctly sized, the back is beautifully symetrical, and yet somehow, one of the spindles is bowing out and jamming you in the back.
I guess that at some point with nothing left to lose, I started using this jig to correct errant spindles.

First, I heat up the offending spindle in the area that will take the bend. I am careful to heat it slowly and without getting close to scorching it. Once heated, I simply use a hand clamp and my parenthesis shaped board to pull the spindle into the correct position (actually past it to account for spring back). You can see that I cover the ends with foam to keep from marring any finished surfaces. I have been able to do some dramatic alterations with this method (sometimes more than one heating is necessary) and the results have proven to be permanent as far as I can tell. Good Luck.